The Frontal Cortex

Agricultural Reform

Michael Pollan makes so much sense it’s actually a little painful, since such basic agricultural reforms will never, ever get through Congress. At some point in the twentieth century, American lawmakers forgot that the sole goal of farming wasn’t efficiency; high-fructose corn syrup should not be the epitome of modern agriculture.

It must be recognized that the current food system — characterized by monocultures of corn and soy in the field and cheap calories of fat, sugar and feedlot meat on the table — is not simply the product of the free market. Rather, it is the product of a specific set of government policies that sponsored a shift from solar (and human) energy on the farm to fossil-fuel energy.

This did not occur by happenstance. After World War II, the government encouraged the conversion of the munitions industry to fertilizer — ammonium nitrate being the main ingredient of both bombs and chemical fertilizer — and the conversion of nerve-gas research to pesticides. The government also began subsidizing commodity crops, paying farmers by the bushel for all the corn, soybeans, wheat and rice they could produce. One secretary of agriculture after another implored them to plant “fence row to fence row” and to “get big or get out.”

The chief result, especially after the Earl Butz years, was a flood of cheap grain that could be sold for substantially less than it cost farmers to grow because a government check helped make up the difference. As this artificially cheap grain worked its way up the food chain, it drove down the price of all the calories derived from that grain: the high-fructose corn syrup in the Coke, the soy oil in which the potatoes were fried, the meat and cheese in the burger.

Subsidized monocultures of grain also led directly to monocultures of animals: since factory farms could buy grain for less than it cost farmers to grow it, they could now fatten animals more cheaply than farmers could. So America’s meat and dairy animals migrated from farm to feedlot, driving down the price of animal protein to the point where an American can enjoy eating, on average, 190 pounds of meat a year — a half pound every day.

But if taking the animals off farms made a certain kind of economic sense, it made no ecological sense whatever: their waste, formerly regarded as a precious source of fertility on the farm, became a pollutant — factory farms are now one of America’s biggest sources of pollution. As Wendell Berry has tartly observed, to take animals off farms and put them on feedlots is to take an elegant solution — animals replenishing the fertility that crops deplete — and neatly divide it into two problems: a fertility problem on the farm and a pollution problem on the feedlot. The former problem is remedied with fossil-fuel fertilizer; the latter is remedied not at all.

One can only hope that an Obama Administration will have better food and ethanol policies than Obama as a Senator, who has been a loyal supporter of Illinois corn farmers.

Comments

  1. #1 Tex
    October 13, 2008

    American lawmakers forgot that the sole goal of farming wasn’t efficiency; …

    What are the other goals of agriculture supposed to be?

  2. #2 Dunc
    October 14, 2008

    Well, sustainability would be nice, given that agriculture is the basis of all civilisation.

  3. #3 RM
    October 14, 2008

    Very good read!

  4. #4 Onkel Bob
    October 14, 2008

    One of the unmentioned and overlooked components is the aesthetic, we (Americans) like “pretty” food. We want consistency in taste and appearance. The food industry has recognized this and attempts to “add value” to its product through processing. I’m doing my thesis work on oranges and recognized a aspect of that concept in frozen concentrated orange juice (FCOJ). In the 1960′s, fresh OJ was not widely sold at stands in Florida selling oranges, they served FCOJ. Fresh juice is inherently inconsistent because different varieties of oranges, those grown in different seasons, even the minute temperature variability, in FL affects taste. As such FCOJ is consistent in flavor and appearance. Even the single strength “fresh” OJ sold in cartons is mixed to produce that same consistency.
    Not to say this preference for homogeneity is “bad,” it’s vital in processed products such as wine and beer. However, the preference is being manipulated by food processors.
    The American consumer must not be left blameless in this scenario. Pollan’s passage about his meals, where he prepares foods that are local and in-season vs. distant out of season (to his locale) is also enlightening. People are willing and ready to pay inflated prices for inferior foods whether its Chilean raspberries of a Big Mac, the consumer should evaluate and consider other options.
    The preference for sweet foods is another topic. That too is cultural, Finnish food is notable for its absence of sweetness. I suspect Coca-cola and other beverages sell well below the average for other industrialized (and computer geek) societies.

  5. #5 PN
    October 14, 2008

    The comments on the “current food system” show at least a lack of research into history and/or a desire to be deliberately deceptive. I suggest a basic study of the history of farm subsidy programs in the US as a beginning.

    Secondly, perhaps some research into farm profitability over the last several decades – e.g., cost of production vs avg selling price, excluding subsidies – may prove useful. It would surely change the content of the remarks above.

    If you want to provide content, at least do a little work to verify accuracy before you post. Don’t trust Pollan’s content just because he’s well-known or you agree with his viewpoint.

  6. #6 Tex
    October 14, 2008

    What PN said. Get a clue before you start criticizing something you know nothing about.

  7. #7 Shannon Murphy
    October 14, 2008

    I have done plenty of research into the history of agriculture and farm subsidy programs–I work in sustainable agriculture. PN? You’d benefit from some perspective. Tex? You clearly have no idea what you’re talking about. Honestly? I’d be surprised if either one of you actually read the Pollan article all the way through.

    Jonah, thanks for posting this article. I’ve been passing it around myself.

  8. #8 Former Ag Teacher
    October 14, 2008

    Mr. Lehrer may have studied farm policy. But he didn’t develop a complete understanding. America’s lawmakers never forgot the goal of agriculture. They knew all along that the goal of agriculture is to feed, clothe, house and fuel people and their activities. The goal of American Agriculture is to do that abundantly and at a low cost. Lawmakers used farm programs to achieve that goal and keep the confidence of the American public.

    On the subject of Michael Pollan, his ideas would be nice in a perfect world. But the world isn’t perfect. What I think Mr. Pollan doesn’t understand is that few people are as privleged as he. Most of us have real jobs, and kids to raise and a house to clean. So we don’t have a lot of extra money to spend and time to look for and prepare local food like he does.

    And many of us don’t want to put up with the limited selection of local foods. I like orange juice. If I ate local, I would have to give that up because we don’t grow oranges here in Missouri.

    Most of the rest of you would have to give up coffee because it is shipped in from South America. Now how does that idea suit your fancy to be a locavore?

  9. #9 Tex
    October 15, 2008

    Tex? You clearly have no idea what you’re talking about.

    Actually, I do know what I am talking about. I spent my high school and college years working on a farm I now partially own. I have been a plant scientist for over 30 years. I have been a professor at a large land grant college for 23 of those years. I am not impressed by arguments from people who have no direct experience in agriculture and no clue about how they get their food.

  10. #10 Onkel Bob
    October 15, 2008

    The Ag Teacher and Tex imply that they are from the west/midwest. Out of curiosity have either worked on or studied the farms in Vermont, New York or other restricted areas? As a resident of CA, a former aggie from UConn, and inveterate traveler, my perspective is broad. I believe that one size fits all approach (a.k.a. the Butz system) fails miserably regardless of where its implemented.
    While I agree Pollan has the tone of a messiah, your arguments are nothing more than appeals to authority. You claim to know better and yet refuse to acknowledge apparent flaws in the system. That the comments to a NY Times article are somewhat ignorant is not a surprise or concern.
    Nevertheless, Pollan’s argument is sound in the concept that the current food system delivers an inferior product at an inflated cost. (And cost must be recognized as extending beyond price consumer directly pays.) No one is saying that all food must be local, the argument is food that can be produced locally should be preferred over distant sources. The Butz regimen of consolidating food sources does not provide security or improved products, which is its intent.
    As for the comment that people are “too busy,” the rejoinder is that the people made a choice on how to allocate their time. Societies in Europe are famous for their daily shopping habits. I remember living there and being surprised how small the refrigerators are, the reason being that refrigerated storage was for a short time, not for extended microbiology experiments. There the haus frau stops at the market on the way home from work and prepares the meals from available produce. Europeans made the choice that life is more important than possessions, hence they have fewer toys.

  11. #11 jb
    October 15, 2008

    I am always impressed by the wide range of experience and expertize that readers bring to this blog and hope that everyone can drop assigning the blame for actions taken in the past and concentrate on solving the considerable problems before us now, that have resulted from cheap food being widely available. Too much of a good thing. At a recent trip to a nursing home to visit a friend, I was shocked to see what amounted to padded forklifts, being used to get obese non-walking patients from bed to bathroom.
    The fact that kids no longer see where food comes from contributes to the problem. Gone are the days when lots of people had backyard gardens.
    There are many other facets to this dilemma, not the least of which is the rest of the world trying to follow suit. Let’s work together.

  12. #12 Jason
    October 16, 2008

    As a chef, I’d like to offer another defense of “locavores” and seasonal food not mentioned yet. Known in Italy as primizie, or the first-of-the-season excitement… it’s a beautiful, natural progression. Spring onions beget asparagus, asparagus begets porcini mushrooms, right through peaches, eggplant and tomatoes, squash, etc. You’re always excited to notice new foods popping up on shelves every week as you shop. If you taste fresh spring asparagus from a local farm alongside asparagus that has been gassed, refrigerated and shipped from across the globe, there is simply no comparison. As for OJ, I’d prefer to have thick, creamy freshly-juiced oranges, even if only one time a year, than go through life drinking the thin, watery, cooked and dead-tasting OJ that sits inert on the shelves here. Is it crazy to suggest that someone might have to be denied something at times? Or that certain specialty foods (like, gasp, meat products) should be occasional treats rather than everyday fare?

  13. #13 Adrienne
    October 21, 2008

    Former Ag Teacher wrote:What I think Mr. Pollan doesn’t understand is that few people are as privleged as he. Most of us have real jobs, and kids to raise and a house to clean. So we don’t have a lot of extra money to spend and time to look for and prepare local food like he does.

    Actually, he does. Pollan addresses both issues in his book In Defense of Food. He points out that Americans spend less per capita on food compared to every other “first world nation”. He suggests trading off quantitiy for quality. Pollan also addresses the time issue as well, coming to many of the same conclusions as Onkel Bob.

  14. #14 Gerardo Camilo
    October 21, 2008

    The agriculture problems are analogous to parent-offspring conflicts in evolutionary ecology. Is not in the farmer’s best interest to have better consumers, just more.

  15. #15 Rebecca
    October 21, 2008

    I disagree with Gerardo’s comment that it “is not in the farmer’s interest to have better consumers, just more.”

    Better consumers, at least in my idea of what that means, are more educated consumers, consumers who are aware of what it takes to bring a quality product to market, more consumers who are looking for quality over quantity.

    Too, if you are a small farmer, as I am, you may find that you are at your production capacity, and that more consumers cannot be served, but “better consumers” may be more loyal, thus ensuring a market for what you can produce.

  16. #16 Rachael
    October 23, 2008

    Comments like this drive me batty, since the solution is so simple:

    > So we don’t have a lot of extra money to spend and time to look for and prepare local food like he does. And many of us don’t want to put up with the limited selection of local foods. I like orange juice. If I ate local, I would have to give that up because we don’t grow oranges here in Missouri.

    AMERICANS (myself included): Adjust your standard of living. The fact that you think you can afford all of these out of season, far-away foods is a farce. We are delusional about what it means to make ends meet; we are delusional about the real cost of our priorities. In all cases childcare and healthcare should be priorities over food, of course, but the inability to afford chicken that costs more than 99 cents a pound and the fact that one can buy corn far cheaper than what it takes to grow corn should be one giant clue that something is disturbingly wrong with American priorities.

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    December 17, 2010

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